How People Make Ideas Powerful

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What makes an idea powerful? This was a question posed to Marxist geographer David Harvey among others at a recent panel at the London School of Economics. Before launching into the unasked question of why Marx is not covered all that much at the world’s leading schools of economics, he did give a couple of insights. The first is that powerful ideas can and perhaps should be a material force in history. Second, a powerful idea reveals something that you didn’t see before. And finally, that to effect change in the world, regardless of the idea, you also have to transform social relations. This last point is I think the most important and one that was not really discussed all that much.

I was recently trying to figure out why it was that I can’t seem to “take it easy” on a run when I’m supposed to. For some reason I always feel the need to push myself and do something better than I did on the pervious run. I need a more efficient heartrate, a better split time here or there, a better average pace, faster cadence, etc. There is always something to improve and the little Polar device on my wrist records the data I then use it to push myself. I ran tonight for the first time after a month off for the flu and to mend a painful kneecap. And rather than take it easy, I had to seek a certain level of competence.

Part of this obsession with performance is an imagined social pressure. I share my data and want other runners to see how well I think I am doing. I don’t want to appear slow or lazy. I have sort of imagined this club where I need to post certain numbers to be accepted. This is foolish since no such club exists and runners are some of the most open and accepting people I have ever met. That you are running is the thing – not the numbers you post. However, most of this drive is because I am still trying to figure out this body of mine. I was never an athlete and I am just learning about my own limits and capabilities. The numbers do give me a clue as to my relative level of competence in running. They give me a steady stream of data to tweak and improve. No matter what pace others are running, I can always improve my own. It is just me and the numbers and improving my perfomance is my prime motivation.

So what measures competence in ideas? These are trickier. In science some ideas simply work better than others. If yours happens to work the best, the designation of theory might be yours to own. There are objective measures in science to determine this, but no theory exists without a great deal of smart people to confirm them and disseminate the knowledge on behalf of the person who thought the thing up. Science progresses not just from numbers and facts, but in so far as these numbers and facts work through communities of scholars at the right time and place. Just ask Galileo or Bruno about time and place. Who you know is important.

Science and art connect in this social dimension. I have for years fancied myself something of a writer, but unlike the numbers I can improve on a run to improve my performance, art is a far less an objective sort of arena to test one’s competence. I do know many people who had a certain knack for their art who then decided to work very hard at their craft, go to school to become experts, and moved into the world to perform with other musicians and continue to work. Some have done so in the presence of the right people at the right time and have made a career of it now performing with musicians whose music they were playing in high school cover bands. Others are no less competent, but have not found that lightning in a bottle. The point is that there are songs and books sitting on hard drives all over the world that many people will never hear or read. These are pieces that may be just as good or better than the stuff that gets great commercial success. For these ideas to live on in the collective memory of society and have a powerful and lasting impact, the right people at the right time must confer some degree of approval, or those ideas will be lost.

There are two points to all of this. The first is that I am far more comfortable with numbers my body generates that I can manipulate in order to achive competence in running. Working on this with absolutely no requirement for public opinion or approval is an utter joy to me. But this is also why I am something of a coward. I abhor the thought of the public scutinizing my writing with the prospect that I do indeed stink at it after all. I don’t quite have the fortitude to work that out just now. But with that said, it is a fear that I can resolve now that I have named it. It now has an objective reality that I can investigate and change much like I will change my efforts to improve my running numbers when I hit the pavement this weekend.

The second point is that given the social nature of ideas, it is important not only to tell people when they have thought of something good, we must put them into contact with the people who can spread those ideas and enlarge them. This is not only a moral good to build the competence of the creator, but it gives all good ideas a fighting change to take on that material reality and change something in our societies and cultures for the better. The great intangible effect of a solid university education is the network of people you join who can help move your ideas to places where they will flourish. People matter to ideas and the power they can wield. Good ideas deserve to live on in our social conscience rather than gather dust on shelves and in hard drives no one will ever see.

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Biblical Literalism is Scientific, but Not in the Way You Think

The argument assertion goes something like this:

Number 1:

  • Evolution has never been directly observed.
  • It is based on of a theory created by one man (Darwin).
  • Therefore it is not science.

Number 2:

  • The probability of the ordered universe emerging out of chaos is infinitesimally small.
  • You can’t get the order of the universe without direction.
  • Therefore a Designer must have made it that way.

Let’s table the fact that what we see here is a total lack of understanding of what the scientific method is, what a hypothesis is, and how all of those observations and predictions create theories. The scientific method is in itself a process of creating order out of chaos.

If you can stomach it, this fellow goes through the tired assertions of the above argument. Not to mention he is basically calling his atheist interlocutor stupid which is ironic since the supposed atheist seems to understand 5th grade science better than Mr. Feuerstein.

Literal readings developed when both German biblical criticism and science began challenging the construction of knowledge itself. The process by which knowledge is created in ways not related to God gained traction as research based education grew. LIteral readings of the text emerged as a response to the growth of a more or less agnostic presentation of knowledge through science and rationalism, but did so in a strange way. Fundamentalism, and similar evangelical streams of religious thinking, actually made a move to make the bible more scientifically relevant. That is to say, the bible was based in observable fact even more so than science. It is like an epistemological pissing contest.

However, this fundamentalist understanding of knowledge relies on a Baconian scientific system that rooted in pure observation. Science is not in itself the problem. The hypothetical testing process is what, and still does, have the biblical literalist sort in a tizzy. They argue that because you can’t “see” evolution, it is a faith claim and therefore not science. Yet faith in God is formed out of experience and belief in the authority of the bible as a testimony to actual events people witnessed. Because it is authoritative by divine mandate, it is more “factual” and based on “observation.” See how that move works? It argues that a literalist reading of the bible is more scientifically valid than the science of evolution! How’s that for irony.

We should pay attention to how we make sense of the world. Watch how this way of constructing knowledge persists even in post-fundamentalist thinking where the process remains the same, while only the content changes. A kind of self-pity emerges because when one system is destroyed, no alternative means of knowledge construction is there. I call this the depressed liberal. You have new content for what you believe, but you no longer have a viable structure to make sense of all of it and manage it. Thus, the blanket term “postmodern” is thrust upon it as an explanation for something that isn’t even there.

Here is where science and religion converge. Science is an act of refining and making more precise what we know about the world down to the smallest building blocks of nature. The practice of knowing God is a disciplined program where one comes to understand oneself in relation to God down to the smallest fraction of time and through the most mindful of behaviors. In both, a kind of awareness develops about the cosmos and how everything is somehow intelligible and mysterious at the same time.

While Feuerstein and his ilk see this relationship between two understandings of reality as a war, I see it as a dance.

Are Natural Scientists Smarter and Therefore, Less Religious?

 

According to one study, the answer is yes.

In a survey of IQ measures in “elite” institutions, researchers argue that physical scientists (biology, physics, chemistry, etc.) have overall higher IQ’s than their social scientist counterparts. They then argue that the kind of reasoning in physical science is superior because of its reduced emotional influence.

“[Physical] scientists are overwhelmingly atheist,” Dutton said. “This is predicted by their high IQ, which allows you to rise above emotion and see through the fallacious, emotional arguments.” Arguments about God are all emotional arguments, he added.

There are very obvious problems in the research. First, it focuses on a particular sample of scholars where even if the data is true, science demands the method be tested to see if the conclusions are even valid. Second, the use of IQ as a measure of intelligence is suspect. Numerous papers have been published arguing the validity of IQ as a measure of intelligence or aptitude.

Finally, the claim that arguments about God are all emotional is made with no evidence to support it. It is hard to imagine that massive works of logic and reasoning about God such as St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae, or Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics, or the centuries of theological thinking are all emotional in nature. In fact, at one point theology was called “the mother of all sciences.” Therefore, this assumption perhaps reveals a hidden agenda that is ironically rooted in emotion. Similarly, Richard Dawkins likens theology to the study of leprechauns and that it has no business as a university discipline.

Research probes the truth, no matter how uncomfortable. It may be true that scholars of physical science have high IQ’s. However, it is an unscientific stretch to say that their reasoning is superior and such superior reasoning is why they are correlated with atheism. Good science means that we cannot confuse a correlation with causation. Thus, the research conducted here is unscientific and shoddy at best.

Creationism Will Never Be Science

Texas is back in the news as parties clash over teaching creationism along side of evolution in the science classroom. The creationism debate is not new for Texas. This goes hand-in-hand with the notion that we should teach the controversy. In principle this is a good idea. Science is not without controversies, nor is any academic endeavor. The goal in academic study is to propose ideas, test those ideas, and then allow your conclusions to go under the microscope of public scrutiny.

But there are certain facts about the world that are no longer under as much scrutiny because they are continually proven to be correct. That is to say, they continue to be powerful predictors of events. The speed of light is one constant as is the way the heart pumps or specific vaccines fight disease. There may be some controversy if you want to call it that, but that discussion is just the way science works. In science ideas are refined even if the basic principles are essentially the same.

Evolution works this way. Time and time again it has been one of the most powerful models to predict how populations of organisms develop and mutate. These are large populations over very long periods of time. Apes did not one day become Homo sapiens. This was a long process with different species and the genes that make us human beings “won out” in the end. The controversy in biology is as small as those who argue for a flat earth. Yes, there are those who still insist that the earth is flat.

Where is the controversy in science with respect to evolution? It is coming from a source outside of the scientific community, namely, a specific thread of Christianity in America. This is the pocket that insists evolution is not true based on a specific theological worldview that also insists on a specific way of reading the bible. Yet though this group comprises about 30% of Christianity and in some research even less, it has been the loudest voice in the effort to change the science curricula to pit God against evolution. This is true in the debates over textbooks in Texas as it has been a source of friction in Kansas for years. Kansas standards have gone through several changes since 1999 both excluding and including evolution in its science standards. That debate has slowed down in the past couple of years. Ohio is also not without challenges.

Texas

“The conclusions and tenets of evolutionary theory, while not declared as being unimpeachable, are nevertheless offered without any suggestion that there are competing scientific theories,” said one reviewer. He did not specify what those theories are.

He complained that “the theory that life most definitely emerged [from primitive organisms] is simply a foregone conclusion.” – Dallas Morning News

Kansas

“Both evolution and human cause of global climate change are presented in these standards dogmatically,” Willard said. “This nonobjective, unscientific approach to education standards amounts to little more than indoctrination in political correctness.” – Fox News

Ohio

“What we’re looking for in the policy is to create an environment where we can identify and discuss and debate openly, honestly, sides of controversial issues and the strengths and weaknesses of scientific issues or debates,” said Kelly Kohls, School Board President. – WDTN

Louisiana

(Gov. Bobby) Jindal also said he has no problem with creationism being taught in public schools as long as a local school board OK’s it. Since the state is committed to national academic standards, he said, as long as schools are teaching evolution they should be allowed to teach other theories as well. “What are we scared of?” he said. “Let (students) debate and learn … give them critical thinking skills.” – Nola.com

Is creationism actually science? Science is about forming testable hypotheses. I make an educated guess and then I test it. I make conclusions and others will try to do the same thing to see if it works. Even if self-interest moves the data around, the end result is usually a solid theory that is reliable and flexible enough to account for other data about the world.

A theory is not a guess. It is a way to explain reality and understand new facts about it. Until a theory is debunked in the same way it was discovered, it will stick around for quite some time. If that happens enough and we get enough data, voila: the cure for polio, the invention of the microwave, the suspension bridge, rocket propulsion, and even nuclear weapons. We can’t test to see if creationism is an accurate predictor of biological events. We have to rely on an untestable premise of faith.

Hypotheses are not faith. This does not mean that faith is somehow “less than” hypothetical testing in science. What it means is that we cannot pit the two against each other in a classroom because they are two very different ways of looking at the world. Faith can predict true results as the lives of the saints and the presence of miracles over millennia suggest. I am not one to dismiss all of these events as hoaxes or delusions. But none of these are testable in the same way that evolution is.

This is why Texas and any other school board is leading us down a misguided and dangerous path that will confuse our kids. Our students will come out of science not understanding science and go to church without understanding the purpose of faith. Faith is vital to religion because it is not to prove facts about the world. It’s function is to grow in the love and likeness of God. This is my theological worldview through the lens of Eastern Orthodoxy. It is not the business of a public school to confuse a faith that is my responsibility to teach my kids.